Would You Be My Mentor?
While my father served as a mentor to many over his life, I asked him to share what he had looked for in a mentor when he was young. What were his criteria?
Dad continued mentoring through www.breakfastwithfred.com into his late 80’s giving great insight into the selection process of mentoring. He passed away in 2007 leaving a legacy of wisdom, integrity, strength, and insight.
It’s important to find the right mentor. Over the years I have identified seven qualities I look for:
1. Do they have wisdom from experience? Scripture says young men are for strength, old men for wisdom. A mentor must understand the principles of life which I think are the principles of Scripture. A mentor needs depth of experience—and to have synthesized those experiences into teachable lessons. A good mentor has lived long enough to understand cause and effect. Many of us have not lived long enough to see that what looks great starting out isn’t always great later on. I’m interested in “vector decisions.” At the time of decision there’s little difference between two options but over time, their results diverge widely. It takes wisdom to see where that vector is going to go.
2. Do they feel noncompetitive toward younger people? You need a mentor who is able to relax and say, “This person is a racehorse” and I’m just the trainer now. He’s going to go to the winner’s circle. He’s the one who’s going to win the money. I’ll feel good just making a contribution to that. Mentoring is a vicarious accomplishment.
A good mentor must know when to say, “I’ve taken you as far as I can”, then turn you over to someone more skilled. That’s integrity.
3. Can they spot talent? Part of the ability to mentor is the ability to judge talent. A real mentor is looking for championship quality. In my first meeting with someone, I look for “an unscratchable itch” for excellence. If I see that, I know the person will persevere beyond the plateau of comfort.
Occasionally, I see a parent spend an awful lot of time trying to make a racehorse out of a fine mule. They’re educating him and grooming him and putting him in races that he never wins. That’s damaging. A mule is valuable but not as a racehorse. Good mentors can assess your current skills and take a good guess at your potential. A good mentor wants to contribute to accomplishment.
4. Is there chemistry between us? I want to be around a potential mentor to evaluate our chemistry. I want a mentor to be able to hear me and I want to be able to hear him. This is personal chemistry.
One way I check chemistry is to stop and say, “Please repeat to me what I just said.” Sometimes you hear the darnedest things. But if a person isn’t listening well there probably won’t be a profitable chemistry.
5. Will they take the responsibility seriously? I don’t want to spend my time with anybody who won’t take the occasion seriously. I don’t mean without humor but as something important. Does it have meaning to them? Does the relationship count? Can they feel hope? Most of the time solving a problem takes more time than we think. Is the person willing to put that time into it? To think about it between visits?
6. Are they willing and able to confront? I need to be close enough to somebody to say, “If I read the situation right, you are going toward trouble.” That’s all I owe you. I don’t need to spy on you or to stay after you. But I owe you that sincere confrontation.
The person may say, “Well you’re wrong.” If I am I’ll be delighted to find out. But if I genuinely believe someone is headed toward trouble I must confront. Some people might say, “He wouldn’t like me if I said that.” I am no friend if I will not risk the friendship for your good.
Confrontation is surgical. If you’re afraid of blood you should not be in the operating room. And if you primarily want people to like you, you’re not good at confrontation.
On the other hand, you want a mentor who will pause before the confrontation to consider: Am I fairly convinced I’m right? How much can I say to correct without immobilizing the person? How can I say it in love— “willing the ultimate good for the other”?
7. Do they ask good questions? Maxey Jarman, former chairman of Genesco used to say “A board member’s chief function is the questions he or she asks.” Management is supposed to know the answer but the director is supposed to know the question. So a mentor ought to be able to ask good questions.
I said to a woman the other night, “I wish you could see yourself like I see you. You’ve got potential in my eyes that I don’t think is in your eyes.” The natural thing for her to say is “Well what do you see?” If she doesn’t say that then I don’t answer. But I open the gate for her to explore more. I might say “Would seeing yourself this way appeal to you?” Asking the question gives her an opportunity to grow.
To a young executive, I might say “You work in the corporation. How would you look at yourself if you owned the company? Would you feel better about yourself?” If he says “Oh man I’d be scared to death” that’s important to know. But I don’t start arguing with him. The job of a mentor is to open a window – the right window. And then point to the best path.